Nick and I met up again to have a cup of tea and our usual literary debate; this time, over Robert Disdale’s The Toymakers. We’re both huge fans of magical realism, so approached this book with high expectations. Here’s a brief summary of the plot, plus our thoughts about it.
What’s it All About, Then?
Cathy, a young, pregnant runaway, applies for a job at The Emporium; a mysterious toy shop that only opens at the first frost of winter, and closes when the first snowdrop appears.
It’s a weird and wonderful place, where the toys made by Papa Jack and his two sons, Kaspar and Emil, seem almost alive. However, the magic of The Emporium takes a turn for the darker as Cathy finds herself caught between the two sons, and Kaspar leaves to fight in the war. It’s a bittersweet ending, and one that echoes the sense of wonder that runs through the entire book.
Lucy: We both really wanted to read this one, didn’t we?
Nick: Totally. Christmas magic, toy shops, a rich cast of characters… now, that’s my sort of book. It got off to an absolutely brilliant start, I have to say.
Lucy: Didn’t it just? It was such an evocative, magical opening; setting the scene in this wonderful, richly depicted toy-store – it really took me back to my childhood days, visiting Hamleys at Christmas with my parents.
Nick: I don’t know about that, but I’m certainly with you on the power of those opening pages; I was so pleased as I was reading them, thinking I was in for a real treat. In fact, I’d say the whole first half of the book was excellent, and kept me totally immersed throughout.
Lucy: Yes, me too. I loved how the reader explored the toy shop (and the quirky inhabitants) through Cathy’s eyes, and shared her sense of wonder. I also adored the little secret den that she hid in whilst having her baby – what an imaginative concept, this ‘toy’ house that looks small from the outside, but contains a huge room within! That sense of childlike wonder, and the feeling that anything could happen, worked very well.
Nick: What did you think about Cathy as a protagonist?
Lucy: It’s funny you should ask; because I Ioved her in the first half, then as she grew older, I found her less sympathetic. Perhaps because she lost that sense of wonder, and became more real.
Nick: I’m so glad you said that, because I felt that about the entire second half, not just Cathy. Everything got darker and more ‘real’, but I felt that was a detriment to the rest of the story.
Lucy: I wouldn’t go that far. I thought it was a brave move, to suddenly take the novel in a harsher direction, and for me, it worked. Though admittedly, it was a wrench to leave the lovely safety of the magical Emporium at its most magical.
Nick: Yeah, but that’s exactly the problem – we were sold a ‘magical’ book, but it’s like the spell wore off halfway through!
Lucy: (laughs) Oh, come on, there was lots in the second half that was excellent. What about the sibling rivalry between Emil and Kaspar?
Nick: Alright, fair play; I liked that aspect of it. That felt very convincing. However, now I’m thinking about it more, actually, I found it a bit disappointing too, as it made me like both characters less.
Lucy: That’s true; I loved Kaspar in the first part of the book; he was so fearless and dashing… but then he lost a lot of himself. However, that’s a necessary part of the plot, isn’t it? We can’t really criticise the author for that.
Nick: I question the decision, myself. It would have been nice to have Kaspar return to his former glory at least, rather than be destroyed by the war.
Lucy: But the war would have destroyed people, surely? That’s a fair representation.
Nick: Yes, I know all that, but you’re getting into another sort of book territory then, aren’t you? That’s what I keep coming back to – this idea that the book is a game of two halves, and I felt a bit cheated by the second.
Lucy: What did you feel about the pace of The Toymakers?
Nick: Great to start with, but a plod around the middle.
Lucy: Now that I can agree with, as I found it exactly the same. I think for me, I started to find it slightly less engaging after Cathy had the baby. And especially after Kaspar had gone to war, as I felt he was a catalyst for a lot of the most interesting action.
Nick: Exactly. But I don’t want to sound like I’m rubbishing this book, because I definitely am not. In fact, there were loads of elements I loved. Sirius the ragdoll dog for starters; now who could resist him? I was so panicked they were going to let him wind down!
Lucy: Ah, he was lovely, wasn’t he? And the little toy soldiers that started thinking independently at the end of the book, I thought that was fab. Makes you think hard about the nature of creation and ownership.
Nick: You’re getting deep again, aren’t you?
Lucy: I always look for a sub-text!
Nick: On this occasion, I think you’re right, I think there’s a lot going on beneath the surface with this book. I just wish the author had cut some of the lengthy descriptions, and kept up the magic a little bit more.
Lucy: Fair enough. What would you give it?
Nick: I’ll go for a very respectable 3.5 / 5 Stars. It was good, but it could have been great.
Lucy: I’m going with a 4.5 / 5 Stars. I enjoyed it, with only minor niggles!